A soldier’s martyrdom always evokes a deep sense of loss amongst his comrades and the nation at large. For the family, of course, it’s much more than that – it is a blow that forever alters their lives from the course it was on.
It also brings forth a deep sense of pride among family, comrades and citizens. Pride, that is so apparent in the tear-filled eyes of aged parents or young widows, stoic despite the tragedy that has befallen them, and in bereaved children’s firm resolve to join the armed forces.
But the knowledge that sometimes death is probably preceded by unspeakable torture and the body of the fallen soldier has been brutally mutilated before or after death brings forth an all-consuming rage towards the unseen perpetrators.
It’s as if every cut of the knife has been afflicted not merely on the martyr but also on the collective psyche of the nation.
- The news of an Indian jawan being tortured and his body mutilated has resulted in a collective outrage in the country
- There shouldn’t be any illusions that each act of butchery by Pakistan is responded to in kind by our side
- The face-off during the Kargil war has sometimes been unremittingly cruel and brutal
- Till the advent of modern weaponry, beheading and dismembering of the enemy’s body was an inevitable outcome of one-to-one combat
- Technological advances in armaments by the beginning of 20th century made fighting wars much more impersonal
- Brutality in cold blood and mutilation of enemy dead bodies is taboo and this is formalised in the Geneva Convention of 1949
So, when news hit Indian TV screens that a Sikh regiment jawan was mutilated by Pakistan-backed terrorists on this side of the Line of Control, the collective outrage was understandable.
There shouldn't be any illusions that each act of butchery by Pakistan is responded to in kind by our side. Since this is against the code of war, it's not something that is openly publicised.
In July 2011, the Pakistanis beheaded two Indian soldiers. A month later, the Indians retaliated by chopping the heads off three Pakistani soldiers.
Mutilation During Kargil War
The most infamous act of mutilation by the Pakistanis was just before the Kargil hostilities broke out in June 1999 when an Indian army patrol was ambushed and the bodies of the soldiers mutilated.
A brutal reprisal followed during the course of the border war when some Indian soldiers meted out a similar, if not worse, treatment to the Pakistanis.
The face-off in one of the world’s most inhospitable and militarised terrains has sometimes been unremittingly cruel and brutal.
Unwritten Honour Code
Till the advent of modern weaponry, when fighting was dominated by warriors armed with swords and spears, beheading and dismembering of the enemy’s body was an inevitable outcome of one-to-one combat.
Yet there was an unwritten honour code about providing a modicum of dignity to the dead bodies of enemy soldiers once the fighting was done.
Notwithstanding this, gory exhibits of brutalised remains of enemies or traitors – such as displays of severed heads on stakes – were often used as psychological tools to strike fear in enemy hearts and deter treachery.
The Mughal emperor Jehangir is said to have made his rebellious son Khusrau watch his supporters being impaled alive on stakes before having him blinded.
With no qualms about such treatment to one’s own kin, albeit mutinous, one can imagine what would have been meted out to enemies.
Corollary of War
Brutalising “enemies” has been a corollary of war even in modern times.
The caption for a cartoon published in the Chicago Tribune three days after the attack on Pearl Harbour said it all: “War Without Mercy on a Treacherous Foe.”
The war which the US waged on Japan was characterised by a degree of savagery unmatched by the one that was simultaneously fought by the Allied powers against Germany in Europe.
Technological advances in armaments by the beginning of 20th century made fighting wars much more impersonal by placing a much greater distance between the opposing soldiers.
Area weapons like grenades, which, as the common joke among soldiers goes, are addressed ‘copy to all’ unlike bullets with a specific address. They cause wounds, much ghastlier than a sword ever could, to multiple enemy soldiers.
Geneva Convention of 1949
Brutality in cold blood and mutilation of enemy dead bodies is taboo and this is formalised in the Geneva Convention of 1949, Article 16 of which states that “Each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment.”
While India and Pakistan are both signatories to the convention, instances of bodies of Indian soldiers being mutilated by Pakistani troops or irregulars backed by them have been fairly frequent.
Instances are Capt Saurabh Kalia in 1999, Lance Naik Hemraj in 2013, and now Manjeet Singh in Machhil in the Kupwara sector.
There are several reasons why such indignities are perpetrated by Pakistan. The first is the plausible deniability that can be exercised by taking refuge behind the ‘non-state actors’ excuse.
The second is a basic psyche of a Pakistani soldier, which differs from that of his Indian counterpart. With his national identity strongly mingled with his religion, he views the Indian not only as an enemy, but as an ‘other’.
Contempt for Social Group
As Lawrence H Keeley writes in his book War Before Civilization, mutilation of dead bodies has been a form of showing contempt for the social group of the enemy since time immemorial.
This is also borne out by the fact that in World War II, most of the reported cases of brutality by US troops were against Japanese soldiers, who were viewed as racially inferior (even referred to as “yellow vermin”, or “living, snarling rats”), rather than against Germans who were of the same stock.
The same study also found that such behaviour was restricted to a small section of soldiers, owing to aberrant psychological makeup.
It is therefore quite likely that acts of mutilation are carried out by isolated individuals driven by their extreme indoctrination and psychological makeup to hate Indians to a point where they are dehumanised.
However, as the brutal acts committed on the body of an individual soldier inflict pain on the entire nation, the argument runs that such deaths must be appropriately avenged.
And so the cycle continues on both sides of the Line of Control where there is little control over the nature of skirmishes.
(The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian army and currently a research fellow at the Ministry of Defence, writing the official history of India’s participation in World War I. He can be reached at @ragarwal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)